Do I Need a Gimbal For Filming?

As a low-budget filmmaker for longer than I’d prefer, a gimbal hasn’t been something that I’ve really had the access to, regardless of whether I could’ve benefited from it or not. However, there are times when what you want or need to get done could really benefit from its use, so the question comes up:

Do I need a gimbal for filming? You need a gimbal for filming if your scene or shots require you to keep your camera as consistently horizontal as possible. The sole purpose of a gimbal is to keep a moving object, in this case a camera, horizontally aligned while shooting.

Gimbals, while quite well-known nowadays more than in the past, due to their more commercial success with consumers, actually have a long and wide historical use across many fields. Some which you may not have thought of are their uses in ships and planes.

Granted, your use of a gimbal to keep a shot steady may not seem as important as righting an airplane, but in my opinion if you are trying to build a career in filmmaking, then it’s just as important for you to have the right tools.

Why do we use gimbals? What is a gimbal for?

As stated above, we use gimbals to keep a device horizontally steady, and in our case (filmmakers that we are) that would mean the camera. At first, this might seem that the focus is on keeping the camera from swaying down to the left and right, but it’s not just that – it’s also front and back, and every direction.

A gimbal is for keeping the camera upright and level in every direction as we move around to get that perfect shot. It adds a degree of stability, essentially a bit of “anti-shake,” and smoothes out the overall motions of the shot while it levels the camera.

Gimbals create a more pleasing, professional appearance to our films which has proven to be the preference of moviegoers and hallmark of meticulous directors or DOPs who pay attention to detail.

What Types of Gimbal Are There?

There are two main categories of Gimbal: Manual Gimbals and Motorized Gimbals.

Manual gimbals, of course, are fully adjusted and operated by hand, and require a larger degree of “feel” by the operator in order to be used to their maximum potential. This is the type I’ve had the most experience with.

Hand-operated gimbals come in a variety of sizes, styles, and designs – no two manual gimbals are exactly alike and some playing around with them is required before you can begin to feel like you’ve got the hang of it and capture good-looking, well-balanced shots.

Motorized gimbals, though having the same exact purpose as their older, manual ancestors, have become more popular and require far less manual input and adjustment on the part of the user. By and large, they are able to make some adjustments themselves on the fly, freeing the user up to focus on other things, such as the shot (pun intended).

Motorized gimbals also come in a variety of styles, sizes, and designs, but besides the way they function, they are also very different from manual gimbals in their price ranges. If you are seeking to acquire a motorized gimbal, then you should expect to pay a significantly higher price than you would for the standard gimbal.

What are the pros and cons of a manual gimbal and a motorized gimbal?

Manual Gimbals:

 Require a bit more “feel” on the part of the user for best results

  • Are significantly cheaper than electronic/motorized gimbals
  • Need a bit more practice to master
  • Are more durable and worry-free
  • Don’t need power – battery and charger-free
  • Typically a bit lighter with fewer required parts

Motorized Gimbals:

 Require a small bit of learning how the electronics function

  • Are more autonomous and self-able than manual gimbals
  • Require batteries and/or charging
  • Can bit heavier due to the added weight of electronics and batteries
  • A much shorter learning curve for setup and use than manual gimbals
  • Can yield professional results much faster and more consistently than manual ones

Manual gimbals are literally grab and go, and while you should still take care of them, are generally a bit more durable than their motorized counterparts. After all, there are no electronics to worry about so internal damage from dropping or water is less of an issue. They are also typically more straight-forward, although they will require a bit more time to get a proper feel for.

Electronic or motorized gimbals require a wee bit of time to understand functionality-wise, but it’s short and once you’ve got it, you can start nabbing pro shots a lot faster, especially if you’re not familiar with using a gimbal yet. The main issues are going to be price (always more expensive than manual ones), durability, and weight. The higher-end gimbals are often motorized however, so if you’re up for spending the money, then go for it!

Why use a gimbal instead of an image stabilizer?

There are more reasons than one why gimbals are often a better choice than simply relying on a common stabilizer with weights, a lens or camera stabilization or, Thor forbid, stabilizing in post production.

Why We Use Gimbals Instead of Image Stabilizers:

 Gimbals are great at making the camera feel larger than it actually is, giving a higher feel of quality to your work

  • Gimbals take all of the stabilization work off of the camera
  • Gimbals have a more natural, fluid movement than image stabilizers do
  • Certain gimbals can be used on almost any camera you might use, from video cameras to phones
  • Shots with a good gimbal are professional-looking and an industry standard
  • Once a camera is attached to a gimbal, it is “always on,” whereas an image stabilizer could accidentally be turned off; gimbals are “set it and forget it”
  • Gimbals are generally lighter than a standard stabilizer, which will utilize weights and can become quite heavy, especially when used with one hand
  • Some standard stabilizers are known for their tendencies for “swaying” motions back and forth, which can create a horizontally-challenged situation in all directions. Gimbals are designed so that this isn’t the case.
  • Generally, gimbals are easier to carry from location to location due to their lower weight and often smaller size, especially for DSLR-type movie shooters

I spent quite a bit of time—too much, actually—using an image stabilizer with weights. No matter what I tried, I just couldn’t seem to get it away from the back-and-forth swinging motion.

The sole reason I got the stabilizer instead of a gimbal was due to my limited budget but desire to smooth out the shots from my small Canon T3i, and it did…but it also swayed, making my shots feel more like a boat than a camera.

My next purchase, however, is going to be a powered gimbal.

How do I adjust a gimbal?

As it relates to the actual use of a gimbal, you may be wondering how you should go about adjusting it once you’ve attached the camera, or if adjustment is actually needed at all. Is using the manual gimbal more involved than adjusting a motorized gimbal?

How do I adjust a gimbal? Whether it’s a manual or motorized gimbal, a minimal level adjustment will be necessary to the plate where the camera sits. This type of adjustment is easily done by hand and is essential for helping the gimbal to operate to its maximum ability.

After the camera is positioned where desired, further consideration must be given to anything else that will be connected, as it will undoubtedly change the balance center of the entire unit, as well as how often you plan to add/remove other accessories or change lenses.

After the camera is attached and the gimbal seems balanced, adding that huge lens and other attachments will suddenly throw it all out of balance again. Not to worry: all that’s needed is a little more adjustment and everything will be back in balance.

The simpler, basic gimbals will have a very low amount of adjustment needed, which has its benefits and drawbacks. The good thing is that there will be less to deal with and do, which means saving a bit of time. However, the drawbacks are that you don’t have the deeper level of fine-tuning available and thusly balance abilities, as well as better results on your masterpiece.

More involved, or what I call “expensive” gimbals will inevitably have more to play with, so to speak. They’ll offer multiple pins, bars, screws, and rails for balancing in different directions which, as mentioned above, have their pluses—but it is not also without its learning curve and minuses as well.

The two types of more sophisticated (expensive but also better-performing) gimbals are hand-adjustable (tool-free) and tool-adjustable.

Hand-Adjustable (Toolless) Gimbals:

 Great for those who plan to be changing lenses often or adding/removing accessories on the fly

  • Much faster to use than those requiring tools
  • A bit heavier generally than tool-adjustable gimbals due to extra parts needed

Tool-Adjustable Gimbals:

 Typically more stable and stay in their desired position better, once balanced and tightened

  • Typically lighter than the toolless gimbals because they require fewer parts
  • More time-consuming and slower to use than hand-adjustable gimbals, as they require tools to adjust

If you have decided that a gimbal is what you need and want to pick the best one for you, then you should primarily consider your style of shooting projects.

 Rather than try to fit your gimbal to what you’re doing currently or are about to do, try to think about how you’ve shot previous films or videos, if any. Did you change lenses often? Did you add or remove components regularly? Do you have a large collection of lenses that you like to play with? If so, then you just might want to go for a gimbal that is adjustable quickly by hand.

If you’ve never shot any films, have limited experience, just one lens (I’m sorry—I hope it’s a good one), or have a rather conservative shooting style as it relates to your camera mods or lense changes, then you might consider nabbing a tool-adjustable gimbal, which will require fewer re-balances, be a bit lighter, and perhaps a bit more stable.

How to Use a Gimbal

When you are finally ready to attach your camera to a gimbal and get those shots, you can refer to these short, simple steps to smooth out the roughness.

How to Use a Gimbal:

 The first and arguably most important step is to properly fasten and balance your camera to the gimble seat

  1. Attach any and all extra lenses and/or accessories to the camera which you’ll be using
  2. Rebalance the gimbal as needed, as required by the additional components. Remember that there is the initial balance, but then you can test and fine-tune it.
  3. Do a lot of testing and playing around until you start to feel comfortable with your gimbal. This should include panning, wrapping around, going upstairs and down, and moving forward and back while walking, as well as using a variety of alternate transportation methods (stuff with wheels – from skateboards to cars – just be careful!).
  4. Sit down and check your footage on a nice screen, paying special attention to possible swaying, bobbing, tilting, or “swimming” motions.
  5. Take what you’ve learned, readjust your gimbal, and do it again. Keep playing with it until you’re satisfied.
  6. As a final note, make sure you get a level of proficiency and nice-looking shots with your test footage before you go out to shoot your film. This also goes for anyone else you’ll have using the camera. It won’t do for you to spend all this time familiarizing yourself with the gimbal’s use if you’re just going to hand it off to someone else on shooting days.

Related Questions About Gimbals

What Gimbal is Best for a DSLR?

Depending on what your intended project is and how you’ll be using your camera (including the attachments it will have), the type of gimbal that’s best will vary. If you plan to be primarily using just one or two lenses the entire shoot and aren’t going to be attaching much to the camera, then a smaller, basic gimbal will suffice.

If you are planning or thinking about some more varied and/or complicated shots now or in the future, or perhaps you need to attach more accessories, then you may want to consider picking up a somewhat larger gimbal with more abilities to meet the demand.

As far as brand name, it is recommended that you pay close attention to filmmakers’ or users’ reviews of the type of gimbal you are interested in picking up, whether smaller or larger, cheaper or more expensive.

Do Cheap Gimbals Work?

Some cheaper gimbals can work just fine, especially for smaller cameras and especially phones. However, for larger cameras and/or setups with extra attachments, or perhaps more complicated shots or setups, a cheap gimbal just may not give you the level of adjustment and performance capability you need or desire.

Keep in mind what kind of result you want and then from there you can connect it to your budget. If you don’t care too much about the money, then spend a bit more to get a higher-rated gimbal to suit your needs.

However, if you are trying to get good results while spending as little cash as possibly, you might just be disappointed and wind up with footage that sways back and forth more than a camera attached to Michael Phelp’s back while he goes for another gold.

Can I Use a Gimbal with a Smartphone?

Gimbals can absolutely be used with a smartphone, but it is best to buy a gimbal that is specially-made for use with smartphones. They tend to be smaller, lighter, and made to function best with phones.

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